This is my fourth season covering the New York Rangers as a beat reporter. I have seen many ups and downs for the team as well as for individual players. Needless to say I have seen a lot of the team's star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, a nightly fixture year-in year-out whether the team is going well or playing poorly.
I have seen Henrik during some very low moments---struggles, slumps, being eliminated by the Penguins and Caps in the playoffs, being eliminated from even making the playoffs on the final day of the 2009-10 season---yet I am not sure I have ever seen him as upset with himself as he was following Saturday's 3-1 loss in Columbus.
Lundqvist surrendered the game-winning goal to Rick Nash on a shot that came from near the right corner and well behind the goal line. Rangers coach John Tortorella said of the goal, "It can't happen. Ever." But it did.
And Lundqvist was devestated that he let in such a bad goal, especially since it cost his team a game in which they played well and were good enough to win. I could see it in his eyes when speaking with him after the game. I could see it in his body language---usually very upright and full of confidence no matter the circumstance. And I could hear it in his words, spoken in a near whisper.
A regular season game, number 31 out of 82 that will be played. And Henrik just seemed crushed.
The next night, after he bounced back with a 31-save shutout---his league-leading fifth of the season---backstopping the Rangers to a 7-0 victory over the Capitals, I asked Lundqvist when he was able to let go of that bad goal and disappointing loss.
"Not until during the day today," Lundqvist responded. "It really bothered me and I was really frustrated and disappointed. I was so glad (Tortorella) put me in (Sunday) so that I could just get it out of my system. Sometimes when I am upset with myself I use it as energy. This was the answer I was looking for."
Why was this particular mistake and defeat so hard to swallow for Lundqvist? I reason that it's because this is the tightest-knit group the Rangers have had in a long time. This team has worked incredibly hard for the succes it has achieved so far this season, a better-than-expected 18-13-1 record and solid sixth place standing in the Eastern Conference. And as such the players, in general---and Lundqvist, in particular---find it incredibly distasteful to let one another down.
And to show the character of this group, Rangers players were passionately defending in the late stages of their game with the Caps on Sunday, even while holding a seven goal lead. Sure, pride in a 60-minute effort was part of the reason, and shutouts are always nice. But the real reason why the Rangers laid it on the line in the waning moments on Sunday is that they knew---they saw---how painful it was for Lundqvist to let them down 24 hours earlier. Now they wanted to reward the goalie they respect, admire, and trust to the max by helping him secure an important shutout to fully erase the pain he felt in Columbus.
"Hank is our rock back there and we want him to have success," said Brandon Dubinsky. "I think the big thing for us was the way he responded. He was amazing. We wanted to lock it down and get (the shutout) for him because of the way he showed up (Sunday) night and the way he responded."
When Tortorella talks about what "a great room" the Rangers have, this is clearly a prime example. Lundqvist is a huge part of that room, passionately caring about letting his brothers in arms down. Dubinsky---and many others---speaking about how the players recognized the importance of giving something important to Henrik, to help lift him, after the anguish that goal in Columbus had put him through.
There are clearly more talented teams in the National Hockey League than the Rangers. But they have the chance to far exceed expectations because of their collective make-up and hard-working mentality.
As forward Brandon Prust says, "When guys are this tight and so close to one another, there is a higher level of accountability towards one another. You don't want to let the guy next to you down."
Added Tortorella, "I have said this many times before, that is a great group of guysd in that room. And the way we play? It is an extremely rewarding and satisfying way to win when you play as hard as we do."
No better example of that than what happened with their most important player this past weekend. First the deflation on Saturday, then the response on Sunday.
Good stuff taking place on Broadway.
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